I’m taking a day off cycling to explore a sleepy town in the rugged mountains of western Tasmania. Most tourists pass by Queenstown without stopping, turned off by the barren landscape, but it was once a thriving mining town with immense riches – the richest mining town in the world, in fact.
Gold was discovered here in the 1880s but a shrewd investor soon discovered that the real money was in the massive deposits of copper found in the surrounding mountains. What better way to learn about that history than to go underground. When you visit the mine here, you’re not just exploring history but seeing an active, working mine that is still today one of Australia’s largest producers.
Dennis was our guide for the Mt Lyell Underground Mine Tour. He had us strap on a hard-hat, miner’s lamp, gumboots, and a safety mask that filters out toxic chemicals in case of a fire or collapse (!).
I’ve visited lots of retired historic mines but this is the first working mine I’ve ever been inside. I was surprised how large it is. Dennis drove his Landrover right inside for 6km and more than 500m down into the mine, showing us huge cavernous working spaces and massive machinery that crushes the rock ready to be hoisted to the surface.
With the price of copper quite low at the moment, the mine is in “maintenance” mode, so there’s no active blasting but we still got to meet some real miners working in the main shaft. They were absolutely filthy (just like a good miner should be!).
Queenstown itself is an interesting place to visit. The hills surrounding the town are scarred and barren from a hundred plus years of mining activity. When you first arrive, it feels very drab, as if all that mining dust settled into a thick layer on the town.
If you take a moment to peak underneath that layer of dust, you’ll discover a very vibrant place full of stories and colour.
One such place is Empire Hotel. This iconic landmark dating back to 1901 is most famous for its ornate central staircase. It’s crazy how it got built. Locally cut blackwood was sent all the way to England to be crafted and carved into a staircase and returned to Queenstown three years later where it was assembled in the hotel! Locals are immensely proud of it.
I’ve had a great day exploring Queenstown. Mining towns are rugged places with rough edges but this one has a lot of character under the surface. However, as I walked out of the Empire Hotel after dinner, I met head-on with a wall of thick bush fire smoke. What does this mean for cycling tomorrow?!
Up next, my plans get shut down by bushfires.